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National

The 'Human Error' That's Snarling The New York City Mayor's Race

People vote during the Primary Election Day at P.S. 249 The Caton School on June 22 in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn borough in New York City.
People vote during the Primary Election Day at P.S. 249 The Caton School on June 22 in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn borough in New York City.

Updated June 30, 2021 at 8:20 PM ET

The closely-watched New York City mayoral primary election tumbled into chaos this week as the NYC Board of Elections announced it had released incorrect preliminary results on Tuesday.

City officials admitted they failed to remove 135,000 test ballots from the election management system before starting to count the real votes from Election Day and early voting, skewing the results.

"The Board apologizes for the error and has taken immediate measures to ensure the most accurate up to date results are reported," the agency tweeted.

The error is complicated by the fact that New York City is using ranked-choice voting, in which each round of vote counting hinges on the results from the previous round.

A revised tally on Wednesday had Democrat Eric Adams with a thin lead.

Ranked-choice voting, explained

Instead of choosing just one candidate to vote for, New York City voters in last week's election were able to rank their top five candidates in order of preference.

It was the first time in decades New York used ranked-choice voting, which city voters overwhelmingly approved in a 2019 ballot measure.

NPR's Domenico Montanaro explained how the process works:

  • "If someone gets 50% plus one after all the first-choice votes are counted, then the election is over and that candidate wins. 
  • "But if no one gets 50% plus one, it's on to Round 2.
  • "The person with the lowest number of first-place votes is eliminated, and that candidate's voters' second choices get redistributed as votes for other candidates.
  • "This reallocation of votes goes on until someone reaches 50% plus one."
  • If just two candidates remain at the end, the candidate with the most votes wins.

    What happened this week

    On Tuesday, the city Board of Elections released the first ranked-choice voting reports from the election.

    With only first-preference votes counted as of election night, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams boasted a nine-point lead over attorney Maya Wiley. Those first reported ranked-choice results shrank Adam's lead to just two points ahead of former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, Gothamist reported.

    But just hours later, the board tweeted that it had become aware of a "discrepancy" in the ranked-choice voting results and pulled them from its website.

    In a follow-up apology, the board acknowledged that it had erroneously left 135,000 test votes in its election system, producing "additional records" that likely impacted an accurate tally.

    "At this point it really seems like an issue of human error," WNYC reporter Brigid Bergin told NPR's Morning Edition.

    "The board does conduct a lot of pre-election testing to make sure their systems are working and, obviously, that was even more important this time, because it was the first time they were using this new ranked-choice voting system," she added.

    Bergin said the board is expected to release a corrected ranked-choice voting report Wednesday, but it will still be preliminary and it won't include 124,000 absentee ballots.

    How the candidates are reacting

    All of the mayoral contenders expressed frustration with the board's blunder.

    "Today's mistake by the Board of Elections was unfortunate," Adams tweeted Tuesday. "It is critical that New Yorkers are confident in their electoral system, especially as we rank votes in a citywide election for the first time."

    Garcia, who was fleetingly thrust into second place by the incorrect ranked-choice voting report, called for a more thorough accounting of what went wrong.

    "The Board of Elections' release of incorrect ranked choice votes is deeply troubling and requires a much more transparent and complete explanation. Every ranked choice and absentee vote must be counted accurately so that all New Yorkers have faith in our democracy and our government," she tweeted.

    Progressive candidate Maya Wiley said this week's misstep was just the latest in a string of mistakes by the board.

    "This error by the Board of Elections is not just failure to count votes properly today, it is the result of generations of failures that have gone unaddressed," Wiley said. "Today, we have once again seen the mismanagement that has resulted in a lack of confidence in results, not because there is a flaw in our election laws, but because those who implement it have failed too many times."

    WNYC's Bergin said she thought the misstep would not cause voters to question the election results but that it may diminish the board's reputation in the eyes of the public.

    "This agency is really the last bastion of true patronage politics in New York," she said. "There's been a push to overhaul the agency, to give the staff more authority over political appointees. But ultimately that's all up to state lawmakers to do."

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.